The Bengals turned to a familiar face Tuesday when they signed fan favorite Mike Daniels for another year-long hitch on the defensive front. But any similarities to that defense and his off-season preparation are strictly coincidental.
For one thing, Daniels is now the dean of this defense with a unit-high 122 NFL games. For another, he is gearing up for a training camp for the first time in two years without being bogged down in rehab.
And for yet another, the guy who spiced up practices last year by taunting the offense to fire up his defense and making speeches when asked, is even more settled as Bengal now.
"I'm going to take another step. I'm going to take it up another notch. I'm a little more comfortable. I know the guys a little bit better," Daniels says. "I've got a surprise for my new D-line brethren here. It's coming up soon. It's undisclosed."
But what can be divulged is that Daniels is bringing that same passion he brought into the last training camp, when he made a quick-strike deal with a Bengals team grappling with injuries and defensive line depth during the first week of camp.
It wasn't long before Daniels, a highly regarded three technique in Green Bay and Detroit since he broke into the league as a fourth-rounder in 2012, established himself as a solid contributor and team leader and he plans on more of the same.
Yet what he's been thinking about is the five games he couldn't play last season.
Despite his late arrival off rehab, Daniels had to start the opener and played half the snaps when Geno Atkins went down in the last pre-season scrimmage. After the defense didn't allow its only touchdown until the fourth quarter against the Chargers, a groin issue prevented Daniels from playing four nights later in Cleveland.
Then a couple of weeks later he had to miss three games with an elbow injury before starting the next nine at nose tackle when D.J. Reader went down. Daniels missed the finale when he came down with COVID two days before the finale and stewed in hotel quarantine while watching them allow more than 400 yards on the ground against the Ravens.
With Atkins moving on and the signing of 26-year-old Browns three technique Larry Ogunjobi giving Reader a running mate in the middle, Daniels says he's looking forward to getting into the mix with what has to be the deepest tackle spot they've had in years.
Certainly since 2016, when Atkins and Domata Peko were backed up by nose tackle Pat Sims. But this time instead of two noses they've got two proven (not to mention healthy) three techniques. Daniels observes he's started everywhere he's been, but it's not about starts, either.
"I'm ready to show up. During the game. After the game. Before the game. During the week. Be the presence that I was last year and then some," Daniels says. "There were times my presence was missed. Namely that last game.
"One thing that stands out is that last game and that first Browns game. I want to make my presence felt in all aspects of the game. Stopping the run and rushing the passer."
But they clearly missed him against the run in the division games more than anything else. In that Thursday nighter he missed, the Browns rushed for 215 yards. When he got back to play the Browns the next time, the Bengals held them to 82 yards rushing. With Daniels in there, they had their two best rush games against Pittsburgh in a decade, holding the Steelers to a combined 130 yards.
But if there's any game that shows how different things are now on defense, it is the added 17th game this season at Paul Brown Stadium against the 49ers. The last time they played the Niners, they were the opponent for head coach Zac Taylor's home debut in the 2019 PBS opener.
San Francisco rushed for 175 yards that day and with what is presumed to be a rookie quarterback they'll be relying on head coach Kyle Shanahan's clever and physical run game more than ever.
But whoever that kid is, he'll be working against a totally different Bengals defense than the one Jimmy G faced. Free safety Jessie Bates III and left end Sam Hubbard are the only starters left from that game and only four reserves are on the roster.
Along with Reader, Ogunjobi and Daniels, throw in a pair of massive nose tackles that missed all last season, proven veteran backup Josh Tupou and the promising and athletic Renell Wren heading into his third year, and the Bengals are banking on a seasoned, healthy and revamped middle.
"A lot of changes. I'm looking forward to be a part of it," Daniels said. "There's definitely a commitment to getting better. Replacing a lot of what we lost. More so re-loading than re-building. That's a term that was used at Iowa and Green Bay, places where we won. Obviously that's the direction we're headed here."
Daniels' workout regimen has become a bit famous thanks to Twitter and Instagram. He had to build his own setup in his garage last season, but now he's back in a Green Bay gym with TBR's Jay Caldwell at his side training him.
The last time Caldwell had him for an offseason that didn't begin with a foot injury that knocked him out of the last several games was 2018. That's when he was coming off his Pro Bowl season with the Packers in 2017.
"I feel better than I did last year at this time. That's for sure," Daniels says. "I'm doing a lot of things right now when I'm working out that I wasn't able to do last year. Now we can fully open the book and work on the body."
For Daniels, he appreciates the followers and it is mutual.
"We've got a great fan base. I love Who Dey Nation," he says.